Book Review: The Hardhat Riot: Nixon, New York City, and the Dawn of the White Working-Class Revolution


On May 8, 1970 in New York, blue collar construction workers, fed up with anti-war protests by college students who many of them felt were spoiled brats, attacked demonstrators and raged through midtown Manhattan. The construction workers were referred to as "Hard Hats" after the protective head gear they wore at work, and the riot that day became know as the Hard Hat Riot.

Starting shortly before noon that day and through the afternoon construction workers attacked student protesters rallying at Federal Hall; laid siege to City Hall, where they demanded the US Flag be raised; and rioted, causing property damage to nearby buildings including Trinity Church and the newly built main building of Pace University.

By some estimates more than 20,000 people were in the streets engaged in street fights. Around 100 people were injured. Only six were arrested. Many claimed the police did little to contain the rioting construction workers.

This event took place four days after students protesting at Kent State University in Ohio were fired on by National Guardsmen, killing four. One of those killed was from Long Island, and funeral proceedings for him helped fuel an increase in anti-war activism in the city. There had been smaller clashes between the construction workers and student protesters in the few days proceeding the riot of May 8. In honor of the dead Kent State students New York Mayor Lindsey had ordered flags around the city lowered to half mast.

David Paul Kuhn's 2020 book The Hardhat Riot is filled with detail about the events of that day, as well as analysis of what led up to the riot, and what impact it has had on American politics. Kuhn's book provides a context for the Riot and it's place in American politics that helps shed light on political trends that resonate to this day. 

An immediate effect of the riot was a rally on May 20 of 150,000 construction workers. This "anti anti-war" rally was skillfully built on by the Nixon campaign as part of it "Silent Majority" re-election strategy. 

That strategy began the pivot of the Republican party from it's business oriented past to a party focused on the white working class and cultural issues. Meanwhile the Democrats were waging an internal struggle between the old style liberalism of Roosevelt and the New Deal, and the New Left's more radical leanings. As this internal struggle continued, the Democrats put less and less focus on "white ethnic" voters. 

As Kuhn lays it out, the Hard Hat Riot was a turning point where the white working class began their shift from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

The Hardhat Riot is an illuminating book, well researched and important for understanding current trends in national politics. Much of it is politics are amazingly contemporary. I rate it Four Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐.

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